Labia stretching, or the act of purposely elongating the labia for purely aesthetic reasons, may sound bizarre to you, but this behavior is regularly practiced throughout Africa, and as revealed in a recent BBC special, in some parts of the UK as well. When labia stretching is conducted on young girls, it is considered a form of genital mutilation, however unlike female circumcision, this FGM practice is far less known.

Female genital mutilation includes procedures and practices meant to intentionally injur or alter the female genital organs for non-medical reasons, according to the World Health Organization. These acts are illegal and internationally recognized as a violation of human rights of girls and women. Labia stretch is one form of FGM practiced in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Zambia, and South Africa.

Read: International Day Of Zero Tolerance For Female Genital Mutilation

In order to elongate the inner labia, or labia minora, girls as young as 9 or 10 will begin pulling and tugging on their innermost vaginal lips, the BBC reported. Sometimes weights or strings can be applied to the lips to accelerate the process. Women and girls can either do this themselves for a few minutes each day or have it done by another woman. According to Origin Culture, “girls in boarding schools would sit in a row facing each other and pull each other’s labia while catching up on the latest gossip.” This is done to give the girls a sense of belonging, and teach them that labia pulling was not something to be ashamed of; however, Western cultures would consider this a clear form of child sexual abuse. According to the BBC, some women can stretch their inner labia to be up to five inches long.

While there is nothing wrong with an adult woman choosing to stretch her own vaginal lips, according to the BBC, when this is done on on a child, it is a considered a crime. From a very young age, girls are taught that they need to stretch their labia in order for them to get and keep a husband. In cultures there this is practiced, it’s widely believed that having a longer labia is more sexually arousing for a man, giving him something to “play” with during sexual foreplay, and therefore preventing him from looking for sex elsewhere.

In addition, the long labia is believed to increase sexual experience for women, increasing friction and sensitivity in the genitals during intercourse and increasing the chances of a female orgasm. However, there is also a dark side to this. According to Origin Culture, if a woman fails to orgasm, this blame is put on her. She can be shunned by her community and even thrown out of her home.

There are also certain health risks to this practice. For example, Key Correspondents, a programme dedication to HIV awareness and prevention, reported that there is a certain risk for STDs involved with labia pulling as women will often pull multiple girls, or girls will pull one another without gloves on their hands. Due to this, there is a possibility of transferring vaginal fluids and blood. In addition, according to the BBC, the practice can cause tears and lacerations to a woman’s vagina.

See Also:

Female Genital Mutilation Is More Widespread Than Previously Estimated; Over 200 Million Women Have Been Victims

The Disturbing Facts About Female Circumcision